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A Life Like ‘Aviyal’: Of Burkha, Niqab-o-Phobia And Plurality

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By Nazreen Fazal:

One of my many pet peeves is a talkative taxi drivers. You know the ones who start talking once you enter the taxi and won’t stop even when you try to get rid of them with the fare. In Malaysia, I have had to put up with so many of such rides that I have a borderline taxiphobia. One more ‘teksi’ ride with a human radio and I will give up on this endeavor all together.

Here the conversations they follow, more or less, a predictable pattern.. ‘Miss, where you from?’, ‘You Arab miss?’, ‘Miss you Pakistani?’. None of them so far have guessed it right. And once they get the answer that I am from India they start churning out a list of Bollywood actors and movies. ‘ Aaah…Indiaa! Amita bacha!’, ‘Sharoook!’. And then they ask me how India is. To avoid much conversation I try to keep my answers as short as possible, so I say it’s like Malaysia. Are there any mountains, one of them asked me. I said yes. Then he started listing out the benefits of living near a mountainous region and I spent the rest of the trip kicking myself for answering with a yes.

One of them was more daring and called me ‘girlfriend’. Of course he didn’t mean it in that sense. He just figured that since I am a girl he might as well call me that. Another one spent the whole trip telling me about his life and his plans for future. He told me about his kids who are studying outside Malaysia and how he is working for them. This guy really moved me because he was working so hard so that they could have a comfortable future. Charlie a 60 something portly man proudly said halfway through the trip, ‘Anyway you vann go, just call me lah !’. Then he went on to assure me that I can trust him blindly and helpfully quoted testaments from parents of other students extolling him for his knight like qualities when it comes to taking naive and innocent university students from A to B.

One thing I found common in all these drivers is their love for Malaysia. Almost all the taxis I got into I have heard this question ‘You like Malaysia?’. I say yes so that they don’t have to feel obliged to make me like it. (I do like Malaysia ). But my plan fails as they continue and give me reasons why Malaysia is the super awesomest country in the world. ‘Man man equal here’. ‘No fighting here’. ‘So many culture everyone same’. Looks like the government’s latest ‘1 Malaysia’ propaganda is working after all.

While in practice this might not be true yet (Malays are ‘more equal’ than Chinese and Indians… go figure) it is still a novel idea. Especially when compared to what’s happening in Europe now. Yes, I am referring to the recent niqab-o-phobia that seems to be doing rounds in some European countries. I don’t want to dwell much on the reasons here as it upsets me. As some one said… for decades women fought for their right to bare and now they have to fight for their right to cover… *shakes head sadly*

One of the main arguments that comes up for this ban is that the burkha (I totally hate the way they pronounce it.. Brrrr-ka..sounds like shivering crows) is against the ‘culture and values which the French cherish’. Of course what it means is be like us or get out of this country. Some people seem to be under the impression that if you dress differently your values must also be different. They have decided that the French citizen should look a certain way, believe in certain things and by extension live a certain way. I can understand if you want to ban the burkha because everyone who is wearing it is forcing it upon others (Imagine veiled ladies walking with bags full of ‘niqabs’ jumping on unsuspecting bystanders and forcefully covering their faces with it — COVER YOUR FACE YOU INFIDEL!!!). The world we live in now is really strange. You burn the bra and ban the burkha. Honestly, sometimes I feel like some of these people are not really humans, but aliens who want to take over earth and turn everyone into robots. Robots who study through their youth, work through their prime years and then are ignored the for rest of their lives. If the ‘wiring’ of one of the robots ‘goes wrong’ and it decides to ask questions and decides that it doesn’t want to be like everyone in everything, that it wants to show it’s individuality the aliens brand it as ‘traitor’ or ‘eyesore’.

Apparently you can’t be religious and patriotic at the same time… Really? Since when do we have to choose what we can be? ‘So mam, what do you want to be? Indian or Muslim?’ ‘Errmm..both?’ ‘No mam, you cannot be both!’ ‘ Um…why?’ ‘Because I said so.’

I grew up in different parts of India. I began crawling in Delhi and walking in Pune. I started kindergarten in Bangalore, moved to West Bengal in 1st grade, was in Pune again by 4th grade, then back to Bangalore and there till 10th grade, this was followed by an international move to Saudi Arabia where I did my 11th grade and then finally to my home state of Kerala to finish my school education. By 18 I had studied in 10 different schools in 4 states and another country. What this drilled into my mind was an appreciation for other cultures. I grew up speaking a language which was not my own but eventually became a part of me. Till this day, after 7 yrs away from the ‘defense life’, my siblings and I converse in hindi (despite numerous efforts by my parents and relatives to revert us to our ‘default’ language), we’d have roti and daal any day over rice and sambar. At the same time we love our Malayalam movies (We laugh shamelessly at Salim Kumar’s lame jokes 😀 ) and dig grandma’s special pathiri and chicken curry. I am like the Aviyal which Keralites make for Onam. Aviyal is a kerala speciality. More than 10 vegetables go into the preparation of this and make it every mom’s favourite dish for her child.

It’s one crazy mixture! But each of the ingredients contributes to the unique flavor that only aviyal can have. I do not want to be told by anyone that I need to lose any of these bits of India in me and retain only one. Similarly, I do not want to be told that just because I have a piece of cloth on my head or maybe in future if I decide to cover my face that the rest of the bits in me get nullified. I am an Indian by nationality, Muslim by faith. These two DO NOT have to be mutually exclusive. I guess this is why I balk at the idea of flattening out these ‘differences’. I feel we should celebrate our differences along with our similarities as it’s only because of these differences that we learn to appreciate the similarities.

If you still feel that your identity cannot be plural then… don’t worry I won’t kill you, I will just invite you over to my house. Maybe we can talk over a cup of coffee? Or better still you can stay for lunch and have some aviyal and rice 🙂

You must be to comment.
  1. Swathi Anantha

    Love this article and love aviyal! I totally agree with you on all of your points on plural identity and I’m a special type of aviyal myself. I’m slowly learning to embrace and appreciate all parts of me! 🙂

  2. Swathi Anantha

    Love your article and love aviyal! Totally agree on all your points about plural identity! 🙂

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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